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One of the latest special event fads to hit the small screen has been the live musical. NBC started the trend in 2013 with The Sound of Music Live!, which was a smash hit in the ratings. In the years since, NBC tried to recreate the initial success of The Sound of Music with live versions of Peter Pan in 2014 and The Wiz in 2015. The latest attempt was Hairspray Live!, which aired on December 7. Now, the ratings are in. They're not bad, but they may not be good enough to guarantee a long future for live TV musicals. Let's take a look.
The three-hour live presentation of Hairspray was viewed by an average of 9 million people and scored a 2.3 rating in the valuable 18 - 49 age demographic. The numbers represent a 49% bump in overall viewership and a 77% jump from the average Wednesday night ratings on NBC in the 18 - 49 demo. In fact, Hairspray Live! won the night in total viewers and the 18 - 49 demo over every other show on the Big 4 networks. Additionally, it marked the top-rated night for any network in 18 - 49 for entertainment programming in the last three weeks. The last time a network outscored the 9 million and 2.3 rating was on November 16, when the lineup of Empire and Lethal Weapon won the night for Fox.
Taken on their own, the numbers for Hairspray Live! are pretty great for NBC. When compared to the other live musicals that have aired on NBC and on Fox, however, the numbers could spell trouble for similar productions in the future. The Sound of Music attracted 18.5 million viewers and drew a 4.6 rating in the 18 - 49 demographic in 2013. Peter Pan only reached 9.2 million viewers and won a 2.3 a year later in 2014. The Wiz in 2015 did better in 2015, winning 11.1 million and a 4.4 rating. Fox hosted the next musical with Grease: Live in early 2016. Grease scored 12.18 million viewers and a 4.3 in the 18 - 49 demo.
The 9 million and 2.3 marks the lowest for any live TV musical since The Sound of Music first hit the airwaves. The numbers are still good enough that we don't have to wonder if the live TV musical biz is done after Hairspray, but a lot may ride on how future events do for NBC and whichever other networks give the genre a try. It's possible that live musicals have already peaked on broadcast television and we'll never see another production approach the numbers of The Sound of Music. At the very least, the novelty may be wearing off, and non-musical fans may not be inclined to give live productions a chance.
Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if we see more stunt casting in any future live musicals. There are plenty of reasons why The Sound Of Music is the highest-rated live musical to date, and one of those reasons might be that star Carrie Underwood had an existing fanbase that tuned in to see her try her hand at Broadway music. NBC has already argued that Peter Pan had lower ratings because it lacked a pre-famous lead like Carrie Underwood.